Johnny Depp chills as Boston ganglord Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass”
The identities of American gangsters have shifted in recent years. It’s no surprise that Martin Scorcese’s latest crime-inspired film wasn’t about back alleyway shakedowns, but white collar short selling and excess greed. Violent crime has dropped in recent years, and ever since “The Sopranos” faded to black, the fascination with organized crime has also faded.
Last year’s “A Most Violent Year” was not very violent, but it did feel like it took 12 months to reach the conclusion. A few years before that, Brad Pitt tried to breathe life into the genre with “Killing Them Softly,” a film that suffered from an abundance of theme and a scarcity of story. Every Mafia movie can’t be “Goodfellas” or “Casino,” but it has seemed for years that the genre has played itself out.
However, genre films have a way of sticking around. If “Black Mass” has anything to say about it, it’s not quite time to take the cannoli. There’s plenty of corruption, plenty of murder, plenty of sociopathic personalities to go around. The history of America is full of it.
“Black Mass” is the story of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), a Boston crimelord who ruled the 1980s through drug trafficking and extortion, while eradicating his enemies by informing on them to the FBI. Bulger was no John Gotti or Al Capone—he was far too secretive and cunning to live out his fantasies in public.
If there is a difference in the character of Bulger and the typical Mafioso, it’s that Bulger appears to have lived simply, in the Southside of Boston, surrounded by close friends and tending to his aging mother, rather than loudly in expensive mansions taking care of pregnant strippers.
His brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), state senator during much of Bulger’s reign and chancellor of the University of Massachusetts while Whitey Bulgar was a fugitive from justice, lived the high life of dinner parties and government connections. Whitey, it seemed, was content to haunt dark Irish bars, make occasional trips to Miami, and quietly supply the IRA with weapons.
As much as “Black Mass” is a character-driven story, the motivations and drive of Bulger remain a mystery. He is a commanding presence onscreen, due to an excellent performance by Johnny Depp, who proves here that he can still play a character rather than a caricature when he’s in a non-Tim Burton film.
But one of the major differences between “Black Mass” and one of the more well-known gangster movies is how Bulger’s personality is developed in a whisper. This may be due to his Irish background. Bulger is far different than the usual Italian mobster stereotype. But then, Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello from “The Departed” could easily be described as theatrical, despite being based on Bulger as well. Depp, to his credit, takes a much more understated approach to the role, which makes the film dramatically different in tone.
One might argue that many gangster films are celebrations of the criminal lifestyle. Scorcese, the master of the genre, walks that very thin line carefully in his films; he is exceptional at showing both sides and allowing the audience to make up their minds. “Black Mass” director Scott Cooper never makes an attempt to show these men as anything but criminals.
However, he doesn’t stoop to removing their humanity. Bulger is deeply affected by the loss of his son and his mother. His FBI cohort John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) is driven by an inflated sense of loyalty and a quasi-Boston Southside nationalism. The characters are not monsters in the traditional sense, but men with individual desires and goals.
The film loses its way somewhat in these characterizations by relying too much on minor reactions of the actors to tell the story. Bulger is certainly unsettling, but an actor of Depp’s talents might have been better served by having more opportunities to chew the scenery, allowing him to move beyond creepy into classic villain territory.
Still, it would be hard to classify “Black Mass” as anything but a successful film. It relies heavily on realism and fact-based storytelling to send its message. Each performance is nuanced and the film never seems overlong or dull. It is not likely to reinvigorate the genre, but it is one of the better entries in recent memory.
Just when we thought we were out, there’s always going to be one more film about gangsters to see.